The phrase “I remember it like it was yesterday” becomes somewhat meaningless when you realise that yesterday, like every other day since the beginning of time, is gone forever – and therefore can’t be easily referred to for a quick fact-check.
One of the first things they teach you when you become a copper (or so I am told) is to take eyewitness accounts with a generous helping of salt. This goes double for witnesses to an event that was both entirely unexpected and began and ended within an extremely short space of time. This can be largely explained through the concept of schematic thinking – an idea that fascinated me in sixth form psychology, and which I shall now explain to you in what is probably a mangled and misinterpreted manner so heaving with irony, it just might melt my laptop.
A schema is sort of like one of those crossword solvers used by people who miss the point of a crossword. For those of you who don’t know about crossword solvers, they’re programs and/or websites you can use to solve crossword puzzles for you and, oh dear, I’ve probably encouraged a few of you to use them. Anyway, the point is this. A crossword solver works by taking what limited information you have – three letters from a six letter word, say – and then using this to almost instantly present you with one or more solutions to save you thinking. A schema will similarly take limited information – perhaps scrappy memories, or an unfamiliar sight or sound – and instantly fill in the gaps to proffer some kind of understanding/solution. It does this, essentially, by making it fit in with existing beliefs or experience. This isn’t a conscious process, which is where the trouble comes in.
To go back to the idea of eyewitness reports, let’s take the hypothetical crime of a purse snatching in a busy shop. A dastardly fiend snatches a bag from a woman’s shoulder and makes good his escape, grabbing his ill-gotten gains and leaving the shop all within the space of less than five seconds. There are ten witnesses. Thanks to schematic thinking, no two eyewitness accounts match exactly. Eight witnesses say the bag was over the woman’s right shoulder, because they are right-handed; two witnesses say it was the left shoulder, because they are left-handed. The bag itself was red, but will be reported by some as blue, because the theft took place in a section of the shop selling mostly blue bags. The criminal was clean shaven, but is reported by four witnesses as having noticeable stubble or the beginnings of a beard, because that’s how dirty purse-snatchers look, isn’t it? The criminal was wearing smart shoes, but six witnesses swear he was wearing black (or dark blue) trainers, because he was running. And so on. I’m obviously just pulling these numbers out of the air, but the principle rings true.
Tempting as it is to explore how and why schemas are at the rotten core of various prejudices (it’s currently fashionable amongst racists, for example, to consider certain terrorists representative of all Muslims, while ignoring acts of heroism carried out by Muslims such as those in the recent horrors of France and Tunisia), I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent here. The point is that at a fundamental level, we all have some of our memories and perceptions subtly altered without our permission by a sort of internal editor. An overzealous editor who wants to ensure that everything is understood with no loose ends, in a way that doesn’t challenge the audience’s expectations. On top of this, our memories can be altered by other people – both intentionally and unintentionally.
If life events act like cookie cutters, leaving clearly defined shapes in our minds, then those shapes are cut from an extremely malleable clay that never hardens. I’ll leave the explanation of this to an expert. There’s a brilliant Ted Talk by psychologist Elizabeth Loftusthat I strongly recommend you watch. It will take less than eighteen minutes of your time, and will open your eyes to just how fragile the accuracy of human memory is.
Wandering back to the idea of memory and the legal system; results from polygraph (so called ‘lie detector’) tests are not– despite what you may have heard – admissible as evidence in a UK court of law. There are several reasons for this, one of the chief ones being the fact that their margin of error remains fiercely contested to this day. Even ignoring that, and the techniques that can be employed to fool such a test (yes, it can be done), all a polygraph test can be said to prove – at best – is what a person believes to be true. And those pesky schemas can then come into play to interfere.
Let’s say that, on a day of remarkable coincidence, three people in three different cities have a virtually identical experience in the middle of the night; one a devout and enthusiastic Christian, one a strong believer in UFOs and alien life, and one an atheist. Each person wakes up in the early hours of the morning, and sees mysterious figures surrounding their bed making strange noises for a minute or more. The mysterious figures then suddenly disappear. The devout Christian will swear they were visited by angels, as this slots in perfectly with the world view that their religious schemas provide. The UFO fanatic will swear that they were visited by aliens, as this slots in perfectly with the world view that their very different, but equally strong, belief provides. The atheist, with no existing schemas that smoothly wrap around the experience, won’t immediately know what to make of it; but after research, may well conclude that it was a hypnopompic hallucination.
To put it in a way that even somebody like me can understand, ‘hypnopompic’ basically refers to a state where asleep and awake melt into one another. You’re seeing the real world, but your dream brain is allowing your imagination to drop things into your vision, sometimes with accompanying sound. In essence, a waking dream. I had a hypnopompic hallucination once, and it was bloody terrifying.
I didn’t know it was a hypnopompic hallucination at the time. I certainly wouldn’t have used those words, as I was probably about seven or eight years old. Poor little me; I woke up (more or less) in the morning, and immediately saw a small creature sitting on the end of my bed staring at me. It was as big as a fair sized TV. It was a cardboard box with eyes and a downturned mouth cut out, with arms ending in gloves and legs ending in shoes. The arms and legs suggested that whatever was inside the box (if anything was indeed in it) was wearing a tight-fitting stripy onesie.
Look, I was seven or eight.
It looked straight at me and said, in an unnaturally slow and deep voice that chilled me to my young bones:
“Wide awake club”.
It was scary at the time, okay? I leapt out of bed, straight past the demon, and hurtled into my parents’ room. When I returned to my bedroom the thing was gone of course, and I tell you what, I really bloody hope it was a hallucination. I think that may have scarred me for life. I’m never going to forget that, and I remember it in horrifying detail even today.
I remember it like it was yesterday.